Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate’s free daily podcast on iTunes.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of standing, at 6 years old, in front of the family TV (miniature screen, huge clicky dials, fake wood paneling) and making myself an extremely solemn promise: No matter what happened in my life—no matter where I ended up or who I married or how my tastes changed—I would never stop watching He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The show was my great healing myth. He-Man, a half-naked steroidal Aryan cartoon beefcake, strode into my life at a moment of intense crisis, just after my parents’ divorce and months before we moved out of my home state forever. My lifelong commitment to him was a childish attempt to drop some kind of anchor in heavy existential seas.
Unfortunately, the promise turned out to be hard to keep. He-Man was canceled after its second season, which meant (in the early days of VCR) that it was pretty much gone for good. A whole series of other series—The Transformers, Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—stepped up to keep me busy until I reached the non-animated fantasies of adolescence. But a small part of me never forgot my promise to He-Man; I had betrayed that desperate little boy. I plunged into a life of double consciousness.
More than 20 years later, however—thanks to the booming TVD industry and a group of online fans cultishly devoted to their own inner 6-year-olds—I’m in the midst of a second He-Manhood. Technicians have remastered the show’s universe, and it’s been reissued on DVD, both in an exhaustive 130-episode set (more than 40 hours)and an alleged “Best of” (which raises questions about the flexibility of the word “best”).
Rewatching the show was instant time travel; it hit me like a big muscley Proustian madeleine. Unlike good, innovative cartoons (say, Looney Tunes or The Simpsons), He-Man has little cultural currency—his image doesn’t show up on T-shirts or as children’s vitamins or on people’s back windshields. The show is vacuum-sealed in 1983. The moment I heard its theme music—a trumpety anthem that makes you want to correct your posture and go rescue lost kittens—I felt again, in the most intense way possible, what it was like to be 4 feet tall, devoted to catching grasshoppers, ashamed of my chronically runny nose, and eager to escape from the inscrutably messy adult world into the clean moral lines of Eternia.
Sadly, I can no longer watch He-Man through 6-year-old eyes. The show, it turns out, is not quite the singular artistic triumph I once thought it was. Its creators seem to have spared every expense. It’s a badly animated, low-budget scramble of every sci-fi and fantasy franchise that preceded it—Conan the Barbarian, Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, even The Jetsons. It’s set among craggy gothic castles and dramatic stone arches on a generic action-planet called Eternia; the time frame is a kind of medieval future in which battle axes coexist with freeze rays, video screens, flying Jet Skis, and memory-projectors. Plots usually adhere to the Bond formula: Villains take short breaks from marathon sessions of maniacal laughter to hatch the most transparent evil schemes, which He-Man foils while tossing off bons mots like a drunk uncle (“I guess they just don’t make energy bows like they used to,” he quips to a flustered Trap-Jaw; “Boy, the things people leave lying around,” he says wryly while tossing two stunned Fishmen off-screen). The dialogue is tediously expository, written apparently for viewers who have slept through most of the episode: “Sorceress, you used the space portal to bring us here. Thanks!” or “Hurray! The power of Grayskull brought your memory back!”
The best part about rewatching He-Man, after the initial nostalgia-burst, was tracking the show’s hilarious accidental homo-eroticism—an aspect I missed completely as a first-grader. In the ever-growing lineup of “outed” classic superheroes, He-Man might be the easiest target of all. It’s almost too easy: Prince Adam, He-Man’s alter ego, is a ripped Nordic pageboy with blinding teeth and sharply waxed eyebrows who spends lazy afternoons pampering his timid pet cat; he wears lavender stretch pants, furry purple Ugg boots, and a sleeveless pink blouse that clings like saran wrap to his pecs. To become He-Man, Adam harnesses what he calls “fabulous secret powers”: His clothes fall off, his voice drops a full octave, his skin turns from vanilla to nut brown, his giant sword starts gushing energy, and he adopts a name so absurdly masculine it’s redundant. Next, he typically runs around seizing space-wands with glowing knobs and fabulously straddling giant rockets. He hangs out with people called Fisto and Ram Man, and they all exchange wink-wink nudge-nudge dialogue: “I’d like to hear more about this hooded seed-man of yours!” “I feel the bony finger of Skeletor!” “Your assistance is required on Snake Mountain!” Once you start thinking along these lines, it’s impossible to stop. (Clearly, others have had the same idea.) It’s a prime example of how easily an extreme fantasy of masculinity can circle back to become its opposite.
I could criticize He-Man all day for its aesthetic shortcomings, but there’s really no point. It wasn’t designed to be a good show, just to trigger the collecting impulses of young kids without blatantly offending their parents. It was basically a long-form, serialized Mattel commercial, the first cartoon ever to be conceived and produced only for the purpose of selling an action figure—a mythology preceded by its own icons (plastic ones, with swiveling torsos and “power punch action”). In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that my love for the show—my quasi-religious immersion—was just a Pavlovian response to aggressive cross-marketing.
And yet there’s something in He-Man that transcends criticism. Despite the show’s crass badness, I enjoyed rewatching it on many levels. The deep magical connection I felt as a child was still there, and the show was also a powerful shot of a cultural innocence that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. As I watched, He-Man kept reminding me—in temperament, bearing, and even tone of voice—of Ronald Reagan, and of the cheerful, rule-bound pop-cultural naiveté that seemed to reach its term limit around the same time as the Gipper. In the era of South Park, Adult Swim, and TV Funhouse (whose “Ambiguously Gay Duo” picks up on the sexual comedy of He-Man perfectly), cartoons have become carriers of adult attitudes and ideas. Even today’s kids’ programming is self-conscious and ironic. SpongeBob would have mocked He-Man until he cried. It’s a very long way from here to Eternia.